Ryan Green is a student at University of Rochester. Last month, after joining up with the University’s Urban Explorers (UrbEx ) club, he toured Rochester’s Times Square Building, formerly the Genesee Valley Trust Company . You probably know it by the enormous set of wings on top of it. Aside from maybe the Mercury statue, those “wings of progress” are easily the most recognizable element of Rochester’s skyline. And while they have a story all their own, there’s plenty more history to be found on the fourteen floors beneath.
Although the building is not open for public tours, Richard Calabrese Jr., who manages the property, says he likes touring the urban explorer group because of their genuine curiosity. Although, if a fundraising tour is requested, Calabrese says he’d consider that. “I have all kinds of history that I’ve learned over the years.” Ryan Green had such a good time touring the building, he wanted to share these photos, and his experience, with us…
First, a little bit of background. The architects of the Genesee Valley Trust bank building (now The Times Square Building) were New York City firm Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker , best remembered for designing the Barclary-Vesey Bank , which, in 1923, was the first significant Art Deco building in New York City. Ralph T. Walker is said to have conceived the idea for the “wings of progress” sculpture while walking on a beach in the 1920s. He found four seashells that suggested to him “a sense of flight… upward lift,” Ironically, the building’s cornerstone was laid on the same day as the infamous stock market crash of October 29, 1929 – the start of the Great Depression. Construction was completed in the summer of 1930. Genesee Valley Trust Company survived the Depression and remained in the building until 1955.
This is the main lobby (above). The walls are sheathed in red Altico and Levanto marble. The ceiling is covered in hand painted paper decorated with geometric shapes, trompe-l’oeil faceting and a stylized wheat motif. Wheat was symbolic of prosperity, which, given the importance of wheat in Rochester’s history as the “Flour City”, everyone would be familiar with. This is also a unifiying theme of both exterior and interior decoration. Hanging from the center of this octagonal room is a light fixture of characteristic geometric Art Deco form, which radiates light through a circle of narrow plates of translucent glass.
Those marble strips lining the walls were cut from the same piece of rock and formed to make the diamond patterns shown above. Over the years, much of this stone work had been hidden under layers of drywall and is now being rediscovered while Calabrese is in the process of renovating and updating the building.
Calabrese also tells us of a 25-foot mural called Rochester Past, Present, and Future painted—somewhere inside the building—in 1930 by famed local American painter Carl W. Peters . Most people assume the mural was removed or destroyed, possibly due to renovations. But Calabrese believes it might still be in the building under some drywall. According to Lu Harper, Memorial Art Gallery Librarian, the only images of the artwork that are known to exist are a few low-quality illustrations. This image (shown left) is a preparatory charcoal sketch, by Peters, for the mural.
Also in the lobby, this fireplace was discovered hiding under drywall. Notice there’s now an Orange Glory Cafe in there. And that piece of furniture they’re using as a counter looks to be a check writing table, in true Art Deco style, and original to the building.
Now THIS is interesting. This is the alarm system control panel. If you look closely you’ll see it was made by Duplex Electric Company. I’ve read that these alarm systems would sound a loud horn on the outside of the building. And some of them were even capable of discharging tear gas within the vault if a robbery was attempted. No word yet if this particular system used tear gas or not.
Ryan says the top floor was the only floor of office space that he saw. There were historic maps throughout the hallways. Apparently the building is 85-90% occupied – mostly with law firms and two private investigators.
The Cutler mail chute is still in use today. Drop your letter in the slot and watch it as it plummets to the mail box on the ground floor. Several downtown buildings still use these chutes… In fact, it was one of my favorite things about working in the Sibley Building.
UPDATE: I was just reminded by a friend that the Cutler mail chute was actually invented here in Rochester in the late 1800′s. It was designed by architect James G. Cutler, originally for the Elwood Building at State & Main Streets (demolished in 1967). Cutler later became mayor of Rochester in 1904. Of course, the Cutler Union is named for him.
Yeah ok, whatever. Let’s go…
This is looking west over the old City Hall building (with gaping hole in its roof), and the Rochester Free Academy building, which is now being renovated . Broad Street is on the left. Main Street is in the center.
The most distinctive feature of this 260-foot tall building are those large cast aluminum wings, known as the “wings of progress”, symbolizing the age of aviation. The tower was originally intended to serve as a night beacon to aviators, and to symbolize modernity in the age of electricity. The wings themselves are 42 feet high, fourteen and one-half feet wide at center, and weigh at least 7,000 pounds EACH (maybe even as much as 12,000 lbs. but I’ve got conflicting reports). They are pinioned to their base through a perforated metal screen. The screen is decorated with a bent stalk of wheat motif, and was designed to be illuminated from within, while the wings were intended to be flood-lit from below.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: When George Eastman’s Kodak Tower was constructed in 1914, it had 16 stories and a flat roof and was Rochester’s tallest building. However, it lost this status when the “wings of progress” sculpture was added to the Genesee Valley Trust building. Not to be outdone, in 1930, Eastman ordered the addition of three stories to his tower – re-obtaining the status of Rochester’s tallest building.
Thanks to Ryan Green for submitting
this amazing photo series!
You can view Ryan’s entire Flickr set here
Ryan is from Albany and went to undergrad for Chemical engineering and Electrical engineering at SUNY Buffalo. While in Buffalo he caught the “industrial history/architecture/urban exploration bug” and he volunteered with the Buffalo Central Terminal restoration efforts. He’s now attending University of Rochester for a Masters in Materials Science. Ryan joined the University’s UrbEx club for leisure and stress relief. This past fall he’s gone on tours of the subway, to the top of Rush Rhees library, Times Square, and a few other interesting places.
Tags: Cutler mail chute, downtown Rochester, Elwood Building, Genesee Valley Trust, George Eastman, Gmelin and Walker, James G. Cutler, Kodak Tower, Richard Calabrese Jr., Rochester, Rochester NY, Ryan Green, skyscraper, speakeasy, Times Square Building, University of Rochester, urban explorers, UrbEx Club, Voorhees, wings of progress
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